Yellowstone on a budget: Yes, it can be done

A fly fisher stands in a river along the West Entrance road at Yellowstone. Bison roam in the background.
A fly fisher stands in a river along the West Entrance road at Yellowstone. Bison roam in the background. St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I was asked recently if you can take a family to Yellowstone National Park for less than $5,000, and I had to answer, “Absolutely.”

Yellowstone was the first national park ever created, and it’s magnificent. It’s vast — nearly 3,500 square miles in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. You could visit many times and not see everything.

You can easily spend a fortune on airfares, luxury lodges and tours. If you’ve got the money, go for it. Maybe stop by Harrison Ford’s place in Montana on the way and say howdy.

But you can also visit for much less. Here’s how.

▪ It’s never too early to start planning your trip to Yellowstone. Famous and iconic lodges like Old Faithful and Chico Hot Springs can be booked years in advance.

▪ Getting there: I suggest grabbing a flight into Salt Lake City and renting a car. From there it’s only a five-hour, 358-mile scenic drive to the park. An alternate route — my brother’s favorite — takes you through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Grand Teton National Park into Yellowstone.

Or, if you keep your eyes peeled, you can find really cheap airfares on Allegiant, one of the ultimate no-frills airlines that will even require you to pay a fee for your carry-on. Fly to Idaho Falls, Idaho, or Billings, Montana., just a few hours’ drive from Yellowstone. And, if you fly into Billings, you can take advantage of cheaper lodging on the northern Montana side of Yellowstone. If you book on Allegiant, look out for the automatically checked little boxes that will raise your price. Watch every screen carefully and uncheck the boxes you don’t want.

▪ Due to the vastness of Yellowstone, you will likely spend a lot of time driving. It might be worth getting a nicer rental car. And bring some tunes.

▪ Try to rent lodging with at least a kitchenette. Restaurants in and around Yellowstone are expensive and not memorable. Bring a cooler if possible — a soft folding one if you’re flying — and stock up at a grocery store in a major town. All the markets around Yellowstone are pricey with limited selection.

▪ Staying inside the park will cut your driving time, but most lodgings are expensive and you’ll end up eating in pricey dining rooms on-site. The most affordable in-park options are already sold out for summer 2015. You can start making reservations for 2016 on May 1.

Outside the park’s borders, West Yellowstone, Wyoming, and Gardiner, Montana, on the northern end have affordable lodging and a decent selection of restaurants. Gardiner has the only year-round entrance to the park, most of which is closed to cars in the winter.

▪ The Old Faithful Inn is one of the most iconic lodges in the U.S. You should stop in to see it and maybe get some ice cream. But if you want to stay there, book far in advance. The cheapest rooms — tiny and without bath, air conditioning or TV — cost $108 per night. Nearby, the Old Faithful Rustic Cabins offers lodgings with and without bath options. Without bath, rustic cabins cost $81 per night with two beds and a sink.

▪ The Roosevelt Lodge Cabins are another affordable option inside the park, and they’re good for antsy kids who want to run around a lot. You can choose a “Frontier cabin” with bath for $130 per night or a “roughrider cabin” without bath and wood-burning stove for $78 per night. There are stables, stagecoach rides and a big front porch with rocking chairs nearby. Eat in the dining hall or at a chuckwagon. They’re mostly sold out for this summer, but check for cancellations.

▪ Yellowstone National Park has five campgrounds and RV parks with some 1,700 sites that should be reserved in advance. Rates range from $21.50 to $47.85 per night. Camping is available from May to October. I also liked the Yellowstone Park West Entrance KOA. It was six miles farther away from the park on the road to West Yellowstone, but had nice landscaping, campsites, cabins, indoor pool and hot tub, WiFi and more. Horse stables and rodeo ring are next door.

▪ Want to dine in an iconic restaurant inside the park? You must make an advance reservation for dinner at the Old Faithful Inn, Lake Yellowstone Hotel or Grant Village. Non-hotel-guests can reserve 60 days in advance.

▪ Try to attend the West Yellowstone rodeo. It’s small, but it’s fun and local. For 2015, it runs from June 17 to Aug. 29. Tickets are $15 adults, $8 kids. If you have kids under 12, get there early and sign them up for the calf scramble — you’ll laugh like crazy.

▪ If you start your sightseeing at dawn, you can see why the American Indians called this area “Smoking Waters.” Due to the hot springs that run underneath, steam emanating in huge clouds from the rivers makes them look like they’re smoking. Clouds of steam also billow up from hot fumaroles along the road. This phenomenon can only be observed early in the morning. Plus sightseeing at this hour means you miss most of the crowds.

▪ In West Yellowstone? Take the kids to the nonprofit Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Bears and wolves that can’t be returned to the wild live here to educate visitors about their species. Adults $11.50, kids $6.50, under 6 free. The Keeper Kids program costs $2 extra but it’s worth it. Kids learn about grizzlies and then get to enter their habitat and hide food for them. Check for discount coupons.

▪ Most of Yellowstone is closed to vehicles in winter. The only lodging open is at Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and the only hotel you can drive to is Mammoth. If you like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, you’ll be in heaven. You can also take guided snowmobile tours or a series of special SnowCoach tours. West Yellowstone also offers fun in the snow, including dog sleds and cross-country ski runs right from town.